Slow death of International football
National fidelity on wane in world of rule-bending, Blatter and Brazilian ‘Qataris,’ says David Kelly
Published 04/06/2011 | 05:00
"The death of football."
When Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni was alerted to the precise nature of the arrangements for the loaded European play-offs for the 2010 World Cup, they were the words that came from his mouth.
He was half-right. It may not have signalled the immediate death of football, but it was another signpost en route to the slow death of international football.
England's least favourite world football ruler decided to weight that draw so that lesser nations would face a further obstacle to progress. When all that failed, cheating was conveniently overlooked on a grim Paris night.
Stephen Kelly spoke eloquently this week of the emotions surrounding that night of infamy, the most vivid being the feeling that the country was on the verge of an explosion similar to that which he had experienced when Ireland had previously played in World Cup finals.
Then, his voice trailed off to an ethereal place as distant as the memories themselves.
As Ireland pitch up to play the latest in a series of games against Balkan basket cases, Italian grassy knolls or former undemocratic republics of Macenegroslavia, is Trapattoni in danger of presiding over the slow death of Irish international football?
The international game has never been more irrelevant; in Ireland, the international team have never been more distant from their supporters (never mind their manager).
It is becoming harder not to qualify for the 24-team European Championships, such is the surfeit of mediocrity surfing through an interminable qualifying phase that seemed to begin when Trap last had jet-black hair.
That Ireland are doing their damnedest not to make it to next year's Euro finals amid a group of dull, militarily rigorous outfits is quite an achievement in itself.
But then, with the glow of Barcelona's Champions League triumph at Wembley last Saturday still warming one's cockles, it is difficult to wrestle up much enthusiasm for another tense tussle for a result in deepest Eastern Europe. It's like asking Leonard Cohen to share top billing with the Eurovision.
Anyone who argues about the inherent integrity of the international game can be simply pointed in the direction of the 2022 World Cup finals, which will take place in a country with no football fans, no footballers and no stadia.
And, yet, are Qatar's badge-kissing Brazilians any different from those pedestrian footballers to whom the FAI raise their hemline every time they unearth a green granny in their attic?
The 2009 rule change allowing players to transfer national allegiances, which unearthed a whole series of bizarre and incongruous international cross-border transfers -- mmm, a bit like club football don't'cha think? -- had ramifications for Ireland, too.
Once more, Kelly had his finger on the pulse this week when he reflected that perhaps some of Ireland's newest signings didn't possess the necessary "Irishness" to owe true fidelity to the national cause.
Kelly's is an admirable point, but it ignores the wider truth of how his generation have been groomed in an era of the Champions League and a Murdoch vision, which, in Orwellian style, decrees that football was invented in 1992.
Players are paid telephone numbers in order to command fidelity to club, not country, particularly when the lines are becoming increasingly blurred by those who choose to play beneath a flag of convenience.
Of course, we have Sepp Blatter to thank for all of this, too, thanks to that rule change, which allowed a flood of players to switch allegiances with all the convenience of arranging a six-month loan between Preston North End and Kidderminster.
Can we really maintain stoic loyalty to an international game that could tolerate a midfield of Brazilians playing for Iraq, a back-four of Filipinos playing for Burkina Faso or a brace of Welsh strikers leading the line for the Cook Islands?
Once Ireland's golden generation -- Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne -- shuffle into football retirement, will we care enough about the next raft of third-generation, Twitter twits who declare their interest in playing for Eire?
Keane has certainly changed his tune on the issue, transforming the debate from his weasel-like attack of his country's supporters on the 'Late Late Show' a few years back to last week's stirring assault on Ireland's international ingrates.
Where once he dared to try to justify that players may not be bothered to turn up for their country after the insipid Steve Staunton era, now he was desperately criticising those who had done exactly that under Trapattoni.
Keane's commitment to Ireland can never be questioned; after all, he played a competitive international days after burying his father.
Yet, the club versus country debate is not a new one -- even if, just 30 years ago, an Irish postman could earn more than former Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Seamus McDonagh, the issue was even then a problem.
Ronnie Whelan has spoken of his alienation from the older members of the Irish team when he was first called up for Ireland and of how he pulled out of squads because he was injured or "a lot of times concentrating on getting fit for Liverpool."
At least Whelan would have had the decency to speak to Eoin Hand.
Or what of Steve Heighway? He once rang Liam Tuohy to say that he'd "love to play for Eire, but I'm taking a rest for the summer," as Ireland sought to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.
"I had a go at him at the time," recalled former Ireland full-back Paddy Mulligan this week. "He said he'd a personal problem. So, my attitude to what has happened recently is not an ageist thing.
"How can you be tired doing something you love? Playing for your country should be the highest honour."
Back then, Ireland could go six years without winning a game at home and Heighway always seemed to have the knack of playing better for club than country (he never scored in 34 appearances for Ireland).
Ireland regularly played games 24 hours after most of the players had completed action for their clubs, initiating the regular and bizarre ritual of players getting taxis, ferries or planes through a sleepless night in order to pitch up in Dublin city centre for a pre-match meal.
Tony Dunne recently recalled Manchester United manager Matt Busby effectively telling him to withdraw from Ireland duty with phantom injuries after being stung once too often when his star left-back had been crocked while playing for his country.
Like Darron Gibson half a century later, Dunne would not have dared offend his Old Trafford chief. The only difference is that Bentleys and blondes are more predominant in the modern era .
As a nation, we remain -- correctly -- enthralled by the Jack Charlton era and the four memorable appearances in championship finals, but, 2002 apart, those days are distant memories.
Should Ireland lose tonight, another major championship will seem as distant a mirage as ever.
And, as Kelly averred, it will become even more difficult to maintain the dwindling support for the national team -- whoever is representing them. The stakes really are that high.